President Trump’s decision to upend U.S. immigration policies has set off a partisan firestorm, with my fellow Democrats (and some Republicans) expressing outrage. The administration and its supporters show no signs of retreating.
Amid the anger and political sniping, reasonable people are engaged in a quiet debate about one element of the executive order that’s not been widely discussed: Trump seeks a new policy that ferrets out “those who engage in acts of bigotry or hatred” and “those who would oppress Americans of any race, gender, or sexual orientation.”
For those of us who are progressively minded, the order creates an unexpected dilemma. While we reject a ban based on religion, we agree – in principle – that we don’t want to accept bigoted immigrants.
In short, we’re taking a new look at an old question: What kind of immigrants does America want?
The polite answer is all of them, of course. The media – mainstream and otherwise – has gently reminded us that the Statue of Liberty calls for us to welcome the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
That’s a powerful argument. We are a nation of immigrants and our vibrancy is a result of immigrants’ sacrifice. Nearly every American owes their existence to these intrepid souls, including this writer; one branch of my family came from Britain in the 1600s while another came from the Czech Republic in the 1890s.
Still, most critical thinkers understand that that Lady Liberty’s poetic words do not translate easily to smart policy. At present, U.S. law automatically rejects a range of prospective immigrants from our land, like drug abusers, Nazis, or those who are likely to end up on welfare. We even deny immigrants based on health concerns or “moral turpitude” – a fancy way of saying people who are quite naughty.
In other words, our country – and constitution – allow for Congress and the president to set and change the rules of admission based on the evolving needs of American security and American values. If that makes you nervous, it should: at times we have discriminated against a range of prospective immigrants under the guise of safety and good conduct. But the courts have largely stepped aside in that process to let the nation wrestle with what constitutes an acceptable immigrant.
That means that citizens have an awesome responsibility in debating and living our values to decide which people to admit. I for one believe that our country needs people of all faiths. That’s not a position of righteousness, it’s one born by experience. As a former CIA officer, I understand that having Muslim colleagues allowed the nation to better prevent wars, thwart terrorist attacks, and stop the spread of dangerous weapons.
Yet in my nearly 10 years of service, I also came to understand that there’s a branch of Islam – the Saudi Arabia-backed Salafi sect – that’s terribly sick. Even in peace, these Muslims reject democracy. They abuse women. They harass gay people. They destroy art and ban music.
Polite politics would prefer we not discuss these men and women. Instead, it’s easier and more politically correct to wrap ourselves in posters proclaiming, “We’re All Muslims.” But smart citizens will not shy away from the fact that while most Muslims are peaceful, millions of religious fanatics embrace an ideology that would have the world live under Sharia law – by force or persuasion.
And so I ask my fellow Americans: Does your embrace of immigrants extend to those who reject your values?
Let me make this personal. I am a gay man who grew up in rural Oregon. My parents struggled with accepting my sexuality in part because they believed that my life’s journey would be much harder than my straight siblings.
They were right. I have faced hardships because of bigoted people. But for the grace of God, hard work, and a family tradition of stubbornness, I have thrived despite the obstacles.
Each day, however, immigration lawyers and State Department officers allow people into this country that don’t want me to exist. The result? I have to deal with more co-workers, landlords, professors, and bosses that have a bigoted commitment to block my already difficult path.
And it’s not just gay people. Salafists ban women from driving, obtaining advanced education, and wearing “unmodest” clothing. For instance, the hijab – a covering that conceals some or all of the head and neck – isn’t just a cultural or fashion statement made by Muslim women. For Salafists, it’s a mandate. Women don’t get to choose whether to participate.
I imagine this reality was lost on protestors during the recent women’s marches and sit-ins at U.S. airports. But I can guarantee you it wasn’t lost on Malak al-Shehri, a Muslim woman arrested in Saudi Arabia for the grave offense of removing her hijab in public.
For American women, this begs the question: who should we allow into the United States, Ms. al-Shehri or the religious clerics and police officers who imprisoned her? Perhaps both?
Let me be clear, I do not support Trump’s executive order. It was flawed on several levels. Consider this: Saudi Arabia was left off Trump’s ban despite knowing that ISIS uses Saudi textbooks to indoctrinate their children.
Still, there is at least one positive development from Trump’s edict: Reasonable people are now debating and re-evaluating what it means to be an American. We’re realizing that tolerance and acceptance aren’t just expectations that we have of each other. They’re also responsibilities that our newest citizens must demonstrate to us in return.
So talk to your family. Discuss with your neighbors. Call your politicians. Accept that the discussion is bound to be uncomfortable; none of us like to hurt or offend. But if you lead with kindness, civility, and intellect, we’ll each do our part to make this country a more perfect union.
We’re all in this together, my fellow Americans. Immigrants included.
Bryan Dean Wright is a former CIA ops officer and member of the Democratic Party. He contributes on issues of politics, national security, and the economy. Follow him on Twitter @BryanDeanWright.